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Many of the world’s most powerful people have passed through Harvard. You or I might join them one day. Harvard’s mission, after all, is to “educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for our society.” But the Harvard undergraduate community’s focus on personal ambition combined with our subsequent subservience to authority causes us to be the exact opposite of what the world needs.
During the Harvard graduate student union’s three-day strike last week, I was surprised by the number of students who were supportive. The Undergraduate Council unanimously passed a resolution to support the strike, and many individuals and student organizations signed a letter of support. When I spoke with friends or distributed flyers at Annenberg, nearly every response to the strike was positive.
Undergraduates rallied to help. They signed up for picket shifts; they walked out of class on Thursday to attend a rally at which they might have even outnumbered the graduate students; and they disrupted President Bacow’s speech to freshman families on Friday. If another strike is called, this support must continue.
While I don’t want to diminish these contributions by undergraduates, there was also a lot of shallow solidarity. Many people I talked with were casually in support of the strike but unwilling to skip sections despite the very, very low risk of any penalties for absence, or the fact that new material usually isn’t covered. Numerous students weren’t willing to picket during time that could have been spent doing homework.
This is one of the most unfortunate aspects of Harvard culture: our inability to stand strong for what we believe in at times when it is counter to our personal ambition. And we see the same in our country’s politicians. Like many of us, as a Harvard Law School student U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) was “full of ideals,” but he turned with the political tide from fiercely critiquing Trump to spearheading the effort to overturn the election. How can we expect to better the world if we aren’t willing to sacrifice for it?
Don’t get me wrong, showing up to class excited each day because we just love to learn is wonderful. When I was reading a Crimson article last month about former Harvard professor Cornel West ’74, I smiled to hear that he brought philosophy books to read at parties. But he also volunteered for the Black Panther Party breakfast program, and he traveled 30 miles on weekends to participate in the Panthers’ prison program.
Our myopic personal ambition is probably what got us here. We focus on classes, spending hours each day to obtain impressive results. Many of us work to impress our professors or advisors because we either want an A, need yet another recommendation letter, or maybe because sucking up is just in our blood by now. The first question people ask when doing something new is always “is this allowed?”
And this is why I’m afraid that Harvard students may leave this place unprepared to shake things up and transform our world wherein violence, oppression, and inequality are a constant and systemic presence. For that, we would need to protest, defy authority, and risk our own personal ambitions for the greater good.
Although those who do should be commended, not every Harvard student needs to risk arrest for a cause, like the divest activists who stormed the Harvard-Yale game did in 2019 (42 misdemeanor summons were issued). The consequences for such actions weigh disproportionately on students who depend on outside financial awards or visas and could stand to lose them. People of color often face harsher retribution for the same actions, such as how Black students are arrested at disproportionate rates by the Harvard University Police Department.
Still, given our unique circumstances, each of us can find ways to advance the public good. By standing up for what we know is right, regardless of the objections by those in authority, we risk our personal ambitions. But we become the leaders the world needs us to be.
Some things, like activism, are more important than checking a problem set, standing out to professors, or re-editing an essay. After we helped to disrupt President Bacow’s speech, a friend texted me: “Fighting for something that matters with beautiful people is pleasant to the soul.” More than that, it’s the right thing to do.
Katherine A. Cassese ’25, a Crimson Editorial comper, lives in Mower Hall.
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